I’m working on two pieces of writing at the moment, both set in or around the Sefton coast. I’ve written about this beach a lot, it was a place of adventure when I was a child a place of secrets as a teenager and now it has become a place of solace and solitude. It’s also a place where today I need answers. In one piece of writing I’m dealing with dialogue so I have my ear to the ground hoping to catch snatches of conversation caught in the wind. The other piece is a new novel so I’m trying to do November novel writing month NaNoWriMo and so far (half way through the month it’s working) but today I hit a wall and the beach is my refuge.
It’s the calmest I’ve seen it in months, cold and brittle but also quietly at ease with itself, the tide just inching out leaving eddies and twists of water in its wake. Sometimes we get these tides here, quiet flat water where the silence is a thing of exceptional beauty and today is one of those days. The bay which stretches out and round and down into the Irish Sea is peppered with wind turbines arcing their graceful arms across the water, the slant of sunlight making them seem like giants who know their place, feet planted low in the water and faces tilted to the sun. A horse makes its way slowly across the slants of sunlight on the sand as a murmuration of starlings hurls itself up and down, twisting and turning beneath them, nature in harmony with technology, a ballet in silence just for me.
The writing I’m doing is about the sand and what it gives and takes away round here. There are myths of course, urban myths about horses and carriages in the 1800’s that vanished in their race across the bay. And it’s easy to get cut off here as the seawater tricks you. You head out to the sea across the sand as far as you dare and then when you look back you see that something is stopping you and panic sets in easily and quickly and suddenly your link to the land has gone. I remember doing this once, on a winter’s day walking a dog who had no fear of the water and I have a photograph to prove it. I’m smiling in my ruined red leather boots which were my pride and joy. You can see the rime around the leather, icy seasalt and sand preserved forever in colours which are fading now as fast as the years that frame them.
Beachcombing, I find a bottle at my feet, not glass, green plastic, no label, it glints emerald in the sunlight, scarred by the turbulence of the waves that brought it here. Beside it in the clumps of seaweed I see spools of blue fishing line, a scrap of red nylon and shells, hundreds of them. At certain times of the year, you see starfish but this is too late in the year. Nothing looks like itself, the detritus of people’s lives washed up here becomes something other. The jumble of objects becomes a modernist painting, the brush strokes rough and textured the colours muted and dark wrapped up in the sand from the mud banks.
The poet Jean Sprackland who knows this coast well wrote in her book ‘Strands, A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ * that: ‘Here on the beach, the usual significances are lost, the ordinary object is stripped of context and the familiar things made strange.’ And that’s what it looks like I think, watching the water watching the sand. The only sounds are those one overhears, a snatch of conversation, a line out of place. I’m working on a script for radio so I eat them hungrily like the magpie all writers are. ‘My grandmother was from Oldham,’ one woman says and another says ‘What’s he like?’ and another ‘I’m not going to make it’ even though the beach is only yards away. I see a woman improbably wheeling a suitcase, the kind you see on trains, her friend has a bag of blankets and at the edge of the beach a family are lining the wooden gantry eating sandwiches and sipping hot chocolate in a merry row like seagulls watching the sea. The sun shines down on all of us even though the temperature is little more than five degrees.
I get home and open my notebook. I write down the sounds and the smells and the glimpses into the gaps in people’s lives and they become something other. Just over a week and fifteen thousand words into my novel, some lines of dialogue and an idea for the lot that was eluding me, and tomorrow seems a brighter day for writing.
* Jean Sprackland, Strands, A Year on discoveries on the beach (2012) London: Jonathan Cape